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Ukraine: four points in response to Chris Nineham

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This article first appeared on the revolution in the 21st century (rs21) site. Many thanks to the authors for permission to repost.

Chris Nineham has written a very clear article on the Counterfire website laying out the position of Counterfire and much of Stop the War over the Ukraine situation. It suffers from a degree of strawfiguring: caricaturing one’s opponents’ positions, but we are all guilty of that to some extent. We want to mark, however, that “the main enemy is at home” was a response to the left openly backing their domestic imperialist war effort. Nobody on the left is chanting “bomb Russia” in the style of the late Kenny Everett, although a glance at Greece should disabuse anyone of illusions in the EU’s intentions. Chris’s article nonetheless makes several more substantial points that deserve a proper reply. Four follow.

1. Imperialism is embedded in capitalism

Chris is right to insist on looking at the “wider geopolitical context” but one can’t simply stop at an analysis of imperialism, let alone one indistinguishable from realpolitik thinktanks like Stratfor.

Imperialism is not like polo, a game the ruling classes play for fun. It is a necessary outcome of capitalist competition organised into national blocs. So any analysis of the imperial balance of forces must itself be embedded in an analysis of capitalism in post-crisis austerity.

For instance the picture isn’t simply one of increased rivalry between different national blocs, but also increased interdependency. For sure the bourgeois media demonises the Putin regime, but the City sure as hell doesn’t demonise Russian capital. Putin, judging from Reddit’s global id, is seen as rather cool. The ideological picture is considerably more contradictory than mere Ruskie bashing redux.

2. Russia's imperialism matters

Chris says “neither Washington nor Moscow” was “never meant as a response to imperialism”. Well one can draw different conclusions from that particular slogan, as we see today.

But the theory of state capitalism does have consequences for our understanding of imperialism. We recognise that Russia has been a capitalist and imperialist power under the Tsar, under Stalin, under Khrushchev, under Putin. We side with resistance movements from below against such powers.

This is why Chris’s list of IS attitudes to imperialist conflicts past is so strange. There is no mention of IS attitude to dissident movements in the Eastern bloc, or to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan under Russian occupation. To be fair he mentions Chechnya. But surely these are the relevant examples, not Vietnam or Cuba.

Acknowledging Russia’s imperialism has consequences for our understanding of national liberation movements. Take a plane to Calcutta and you will land in an airport named after an Indian independence hero who collaborated with the Axis against the Raj. Chris complains that the leadership of the Euromaidan protest movement is “overwhelmingly pro-Western as well as nationalist”. Yes, what do you expect in a former Russian colony?

3. Movements are not passive

Chris is too quick to throw out formulations like “the movement has been co-opted”, as if it were a horse that the ruling class could simply tame. Counterfire made this mistake over Syria and now they are making it now over Ukraine.

This writing off of mass subjectivity in the Eastern bloc leads to a narrowing of political horizons, and an ironic one given Chris’s generally positive assessment of mass movements. “The only way we can make a contribution to stopping a war is by doing our best to block the Western war effort,” says Chris.

No: we can also and we must also build solidarity with working class revolutionaries in Ukraine (socialist and anarchist and other), and (as Chris rightfully acknowledges) with the Russian anti-war movement. One of the major drivers of what is happening in Ukraine is Putin’s fear that its mass movement could inspire similar currents inside Russia.

The mass nature of the uprising in Ukraine has at least a potential revolutionary dynamic, one for the moment is being led down the blind alley of a neoliberal government that contains fascists, being crushed in the vice of imperialism. Both these factors are raising the kind of ethnic tensions which could lead to a Yugoslavia-type situation.

4. Its not 2004 any more

Chris’s passing reference to Chechnya reminded us of something that troubled us during the Georgia war. We saw what happened as a spillover of the war on terror, triggered by neocon proxies, and critically sided with Russia. But we also went very quiet about Chechnya. The latter was a mistake.

Today’s climate is very different. The neocons are not in charge of the White House and the obsession with them is mistaken. The aggressive imperialism they stood for was always a gamble based on exploiting a temporary window of opportunity. That’s what the Project for a New American Century was all about. That window has passed. Applying a 2004 analysis of the US ruling class to 2014 simply won’t wash.

Today, Obama’s administration has its sights set on the challenge of China. Its “pivot” to Asia has seen the development of alliances in the region and temporary deployments of troops as the US seeks to concentrate 60% of its military power in the region.

This does not mean that the US has abandoned its interests elsewhere. One has only to consider its attitude to the Arab Spring, particularly its involvement in the bombing of Libya, to see that. However, military involvement by the US has not been the main enemy of revolutionaries in the region. For Syrian revolutionaries, the unstinting support of Russia and China has allowed Assad’s regime to frustrate the revolution, drawing it into armed conflict and slaughtering tens of thousands.

Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now involves the reason socialists are anti-imperialist in the first place. We are revolutionaries, and the primary (though not sole) reason we oppose imperialism is because it puts down or derails revolutions. We want a victory for revolution and therefore a defeat for the imperialist system full stop. Non-revolutionaries in contrast do not propose a world without imperialism so content themselves with supporting the other side in the global chess game.

In quiet periods, like the Middle East ten years ago, reformists and revolutionaries find themselves opposing imperialism for much the same reason and can form close alliances. After all, the point of difference is a hypothetical revolutionary movement not an actual one. But we are not in a quiet period any more. The Arab revolutions have changed all that. The financial crisis has changed all that. Our first duty is to support the actual revolutions taking place: and the consequences for our anti-imperialism must flow from that axiom.

Continue the debate at rs21’s political weekend: 29-30 March, New Cross. This is our first major public event and we welcome participation from anyone who is interested in similar issues and has been asking similar questions. Book online at